Discovery and the SVPA (Part 1)

by | Dec 19, 2020 | Blog, Criminal Law, Monmouth County, New Jersey, Ocean County

On September 9, 2020, the New Jersey Supreme Court issued a revised opinion in the case of In the Matter of the Civil Commitment of P.D. The principal issue concerned whether the State must provide discovery to a person facing civil commitment under the New Jersey Sexually Violent Predator Act (SVPA), N.J.S.A. 30:4-27.24 to -27.38.

Justice Patterson wrote for a unanimous Court in relevant part: In August 2017, the State filed a petition to civilly commit P.D., relying on P.D.’s conviction for an offense that qualified as a “sexually violent offense” as defined in N.J.S.A. 30:4-27.26, and other offenses. The State submitted two clinical certificates from psychiatrists who opined that P.D. suffered from a mental abnormality or personality disorder that made him “likely to engage in acts of sexual violence if not confined to a secure facility for control, care and treatment.” The trial court entered an order temporarily civilly committing P.D. to the Special Treatment Unit. P.D. waived his right under the SVPA to a court hearing within twenty days of the court’s temporary commitment order.

Relying on Rule 4:10-1, which enumerates the discovery devices available in civil cases, and Rules 4:17 and 4:18, the general civil court rules governing interrogatories and requests for discovery and inspection of documents, P.D.’s counsel propounded interrogatories to the State. The State, which had provided documents to P.D. in accordance with its standard practice in SVPA proceedings, declined to answer the interrogatories or produce documents in response to P.D.’s request. P.D. filed a motion to compel discovery, which the trial court denied. The court found no support for P.D.’s contention that a person facing an SVPA commitment hearing may seek discovery under the general civil discovery rule, Rule 4:10-1, or other rules governing civil cases. The Appellate Division denied P.D.’s motion for leave to appeal the trial court’s decision. The New Jersey Supreme Court granted leave to appeal.

It is surprising that this discovery issue has not been raised in a previous case given the numerous cases that have involved civil commitments under the SVPA. There are different discovery rules in the civil and criminal realm. Therefore, it is unclear which rules apply in a civil case with penalties that resemble the criminal penalty of incarceration, arising from a conviction in a criminal case.